A Horrifying Education from Mike Underwood

Just in time for Halloween! Urban fantasy author Mike Underwood wasn’t always a fan of the horror genre and as a writer, he needed to expand his horizons, no matter how terrying. Below he shares what made him truly love the genre. Maybe you can discover a new gem too!


That night, as the storm clouds rolled in, the spirits of the unquiet dead, the vengeful specters of the unjustly slain, rose up to make their presence known…

…except that’s not really my style. I was never a Horror fan.

Mostly because my parents steered me away from the genre – especially the slasher/gory stuff. Once I got to college and out on my own, I saw plenty of horror films, on top of the ones I’d gotten to see because they passed muster with my family. I liked horror comedies like Evil Dead 2, Shaun of the Dead, Horror SF like Alien and Event Horizon, and action horror like Dog Soldiers or Aliens.

But even through those, the horror part (or what I think of as the horror part) wasn’t what kept me coming back – it was always something else – the characterization, the world-building, the comedy, or the social commentary. Those are all important parts of the genre, but not its heart. I was still missing something. I wasn’t able to tap into the part of Horror where the work serves as an emotional prosthesis – a way of bounding and contextualizing fear so that it can be seen up close but not actually involve mortal danger – a genre of catharsis, of violated interdictions, of vengeance and punishment.

My wife, on the other hand, is a veteran horror fan – one of her favorite activities for reunions with her best friend is to find the most ridiculous/awful horror movies they can find and watch them gleefully.

Shortly after we started dating, she started sharing some of her favorite horror films and books with me. It was a great trade – she got to share something she was passionate about, and I got the chance to explore a genre that meant a lot to her, as well as other friends and colleagues, but I’d never quite connected with.

Here are some of the horror stories she shared with me as I’ve come to appreciate the genre with a greater understanding, if not quite the same passion as some others.

The Worlds of Stephen King
Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Misery

I came to King’s work in a weird way – through his non-fiction book On Writing. The advice/memoir combination was very resonant for me, and it endeared me to his work though I hadn’t read his novels. Then I read the first two Dark Tower books and never got around to anything else. Meg (my wife) had me read Carrie, and I got it— the way he represents cloying, judgey small-town dynamics, the weaving through of journalistic storytelling, the character thumbnails, and most of all, the emotional power of Carrie’s struggle. After Carrie, Meg handed me Salem’s Lot, then Misery. Next up is The Stand, though that’s an intimidating mountain of a book.

The Slasher Trifecta
Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street

Believe it or not, I’d never seen any of the above three films before Meg and I met. Strangely, I had seen Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, because I love meta-narrative analyses of genre (I mean, my next series can be described as a combination of Leverage and Planetary). I need to go back and watch it again, now that I know its inspiration texts better.

I’d absorbed much of the structure/basics of these films through parodies and the Cultural Aether™, but not the originals. But what struck me in watching them directly is how they don’t fit the mold I’d expected – being the works that codified the genre, what gets remembered and replicated is actually pretty different from the story itself. The famous main theme to Halloween is incredibly effective in its original context, especially that piano riff, even with years of rip-offs and homages from other media. You barely see the killer directly in Friday the 13th, and *spoilers* it’s not even Jason in the first film – though Jason is the figure from the series which (as far as I knew) had made the most impact on the genre and broader pop culture. I found that I connected most intensely with A Nightmare on Elm Street, connecting with the supernatural/world-building elements, where more of my reading/viewing experience in fantasy/science fiction was more applicable. I was really engaged watching the teens’ attempts to figure out the rules of Freddy’s power/world – what he can and can’t do when they’re asleep, and then what they can and can’t do in the dream world.

Watching these films and other horror works helped me grow my appreciation for the genre because I got to the point where I actually knew the major touchstones/landmark works (on the film side, at least). I love genre from a structural/cultural point – the way that stories riff on one another, how storytellers fall in love with characters, archetypes, or situations, and create a conversation of art by repeating/re-imagining/embellishing on familiar elements. I especially love the way that a single work can spawn an entire sub-genre – how that narrative concretizes a set of narratives, how it becomes a template that later creators build upon, react to, or deconstruct.

These books and films are only part of my ongoing remedial horror education, but they stand out as some of the more famous works, the ones with the largest cultural shadows.

I find the horror genre fascinating more than emotionally compelling in the way that I find fantasy and SF, which have my mind and my heart (pardon the dualism). I think some of that difference comes from what I perceive to be some of the points of the horror genre.

For some, horror is about facing terrifying situations in a safe space – simulating terror and being able to survive it. That doesn’t do much for me. Nor does the cosmic horror sub-genre, positing a fundamentally unknowable, misanthropic universe, where humanity is ultimately irrelevant/impotent. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a whole heaping load of privilege, or maybe it’s just the way I’m wired.

It’s been very fun to learn more about the genre, to wear my storyteller hat along with my folklorist/anthropologist hat – to go into another fandom and see how and why people connect with stories in a different way than I do. And even better – learning more about horror helps me connect with my wife and the kinds of stories that she loves. Double Bonus. And that makes for an even happier Halloween.

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